DENVER -- After 21 years of court-ordered school busing, the concept of neighborhood schools is on the way back in the Mile High City, but not without some concerns among Denver's minority groups.
"I greet it with tempered happiness," says Aaron Gray, president of the city's school board, of a federal district judge's ruling barring further busing to combat racial discrimination. The judge found last month that the Denver public school system has satisfactorily eradicated "vestiges of past discrimination . . . to the extent practicable."
Mr. Gray, 36, who is also pastor of the Scott United Methodist Church, says U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch "recognized that the Denver of 25 years ago is no longer the Denver of today." The city has a black mayor, Wellington Webb. The judge said, "People of color are not bystanders. . . . There is little danger they will permit the public schools to deny them full participation."
Still, Mr. Gray says, "my view is tempered as an African-American. I hear the concerns of my elders. They fear a return to separate and unequal." They remember, he says, dilapidated schools for blacks and woefully inadequate books and supplies, and they fear backsliding.
Wilfred Keyes, a retired chiropractor who brought the original suit that led to the court order to desegregate, says he also has such fears "in the back of my mind." In going to court back in the '70s, he says, "I stood up for quality education for all schools. I didn't stand up for busing. But [black] neighborhood schools then were inferior. Now it's not that way."
Mr. Gray says the judge's decision is an opportunity to build better public education because "it returns the schools to the Denver community" rather than keep them under court order. Judge Matsch also upheld a 1974 amendment to the Colorado constitution barring school busing to achieve racial balance, apart from ending discrimination.
One reason Mr. Gray is optimistic is that the ruling could provide a boost for a proposed property tax levy on the Nov. 7 ballot for improving the schools; it has been trailing in the polls because much of the public is dissatisfied with the current school board. "I think the outlook has improved," he says, "because now people will be voting for schools in their neighborhoods."
At recent public forums on the tax proposal, however, some voters have continued to oppose it, saying that the school board should not be given more money until it proves it can be more effective in improving public education.
Both enrollment and busing have dropped sharply in Denver's public schools since the start of mandatory busing in 1974. Then, there were 85,000 children in the system, of whom 23,000 were being bused to crack segregation. Enrollment now is 63,000, of which about 45 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent white and 21 percent black.
While the end of busing to combat racial discrimination and to achieve racial balance is being hailed by many as a sign that Denver has achieved a new maturity in dealing with race, black leaders vow to remain vigilant.
NAACP to monitor
The Rev. Gill Ford, chairman of legal redress for the Denver chapter of the NAACP, says his group will be monitoring the restructuring of the system, including the redrawing of lines for various schools in the coming months.
Mr. Gray says one of the most important aspects of the decisions by the federal judge is that they will enable the school board and the community to focus more squarely on the 'D question of the quality of education for all of Denver's students, which is the basis on which support for the Nov. 7 tax vote is being sought.
Sue Casey, a city councilmember, says Denver "is at a crossroads" as a result of the end of busing. "It is going to give the city a chance to see what it can do" without court supervision, she says. She suggests that a return to more neighborhood schools should generate greater parental involvement in them and bring more middle-class whites into the system.
The court ruling isn't expected to mean an instant death for busing, because the current school assignment plan is complex. School Superintendent Irv Moskowitz has said only that dramatic changes can be expected by next fall. Meanwhile, the Denver experience doubtless will be watched by school systems around the country still under court orders to bus students.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.